By Ibrahim Dagher
WASHINGTON, D.C.––On Thursday, April 22. 2021, the United States Senate voted on Senator Mazie Hirono’s (D-HI) COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, a bill aimed at fighting hate crimes committed against Asian Americans.
The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, receiving a 94-1 vote in its favor from the Senate chamber. It comes as one of the few pieces of legislation this Senate has passed with such bipartisan support and little to no gridlock. Despite being a Democrat-proposed bill, Republicans were quick to sign on to the legislation and broke up any attempts at a filibuster early on in the week.
Senator Hirono’s bill aims to fight Asian-American-related hate crimes by appointing a person, at the Department of Justice, whose main job would be focused on recognizing and pinpointing instances of Asian American hate crimes, especially related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill will also provide further financial support to law enforcement agencies that respond to such crimes as well as expedite the review of these crimes.
The bill also calls on the federal government and the Justice Department to create programs aimed at better-coordinating state and local institutions to fight the rapid increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans.
In 16 of the largest cities in the United States, hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen by 150 percent. Just last month an Atlanta spa shooting left six women of Asian American descent dead, and it was in light of these events, as well as many concurrent others, that Senator Hirono proposed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act.
The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act focuses on increasing federal reporting about hate crimes directed towards Asian Americans. Asian American hate crimes often go unreported. Directing officials from the Department of Justice specifically towards increased awareness and reporting of such incidents will serve as a stepping stone for a justice system that is better equipped to handle anti-Asian American crimes. For this reason, Representative Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) commented on the bill, saying it would provide the federal government with “a more accurate and fuller picture of what’s happening.”
Furthermore, John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a civil rights group aimed at furthering social justice for Asian Americans, put special emphasis on the lack of official reporting concerning anti-Asian American crimes. According to Yang, there is “no uniform database for collecting anti-Asian attacks,” and federal data is often collected from “self-reporting from a website called Stop AAPI Hate, as well as our website at StandAgainstHatred.org.”
As such, many lawmakers estimate that the reported incidents only make up a fraction of the total incidents occurring in the United States. It is hoped that this bill will work against this, and as part of its passing will include the establishment of an official online database to track such crimes.
An important note to add concerning the bill is its modest scope. The bill is targeted only at ensuring enhanced federal review and reporting concerning “COVID-19 hate crimes” specifically.
The bill defines a COVID-19 hate crime as a violent crime that is motivated by two things: (1) the actual or perceived characteristic (e.g., race) of any person, and (2) the actual or perceived relationship to the spread of COVID-19 of any person because of that characteristic.
This modesty was part of the reason the bill entered the Senate floor for debate with a shocking 92 Senators voting in its favor and only six against it. However, the bill’s modesty means that it can only be the first step in the journey towards a reformed American criminal justice system.
Ibrahim Dagher is a first-year Philosophy major and Political Science minor at UC Davis from the Central Valley. His interests include writing professional analytic philosophy and engaging in public speaking events.